Religious liberty is a rare thing in the history of the world. Much of the world today does not experience it and most in the history of the world have not lived under it. The reason for this is that when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, he enacted a series of laws that granted first toleration, and then special privileges to Christianity. As a result, during the Middle Ages, Church and state were married together in a way that would prove unhelpful. The State now had the authority to punish heretics. As a result, those who differed with the official state religion were persecuted. When the Protestant Reformation took place, it was for the most part a replacement of the Roman Catholic Church with other state churches. Church and state were still joined together. Thus, the state church would still persecute those who differed from the official religion.
Seventeenth-Century English Baptists and Religious Liberty
Seventeenth-century English Baptists commitment to religious liberty was closely related to their understanding of the definition of the church as a body of baptized believers. As Baptist historian Thomas J. Nettles has observed, this commitment to religious liberty flowed from their prior commitment to a regenerate church, as opposed to a national one. “The doctrine of believers’ baptism coincident with the doctrine of regenerate church membership necessitates a doctrine of religious liberty with its attendant truths.” It is no coincidence, then, that the seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor Hercules Collins’ clearest call for religious liberty is found in Some Reasons for Separation From the Communion of the Church of England, the work in which he most strongly argued for regenerate church membership.
Baptists’ defense of religious liberty has historically been linked to their concept of a regenerate church membership, since this necessitates a separation of church and state. In the early seventeenth century, men such as John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, John Murton, and Roger Williams had been advocates for religious liberty. Collins was not afraid to identify himself with their pleas for religious liberty. In the imaginary dialogue between a conformist and nonconformist in Some Reasons for Separation, Collins places himself clearly in the Smyth–Helwys–Murton–Williams continuum by citing some of the same sources first used in 1621 by John Murton in A Most Humble Supplication of Many the Kings Majesties Loyall Subjects. These quotes were later repeated by Roger Williams in his defense of Murton against the New England Puritan John Cotton in the classic 1644 work on religious liberty, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Collins, however, offered his own concise summary of the issue at stake by asserting, “That none should be compelled to worship God by a temporal Sword, but such as come willingly, and none can worship God to acceptance but such.” Collins believed that, although dissenting churches may not have been in submission to the law of England, they were to the law of Christ, and this is what mattered for it was more important to obey God than , citing Acts 5.
Christ hath given full power to his Church, as such to Preach the Gospel publickly, administer Ordinances, and to officiate in other Matters, relating to their Meeting in God’s Worship; which, if we should decline at the Command of Men, this would be to regard men more than Christ, which we dare not do. Is it better to obey God or man, judg ye? Were the sayings of two Worthy of old, Act. 5.
For the principle of religious liberty, which preserved the ability of freedom to worship God as conscientiously convinced by Scripture, Baptists like Hercules Collins were willing to risk their freedom, and even their lives. Collins, was in fact, soon arrested and imprisoned after publishing this book.
Religious Liberty in America
Baptists have historically defended the principle of religious liberty. Since Baptists have always believed in churches made up only of professing, baptized believers, they have always rejected the idea of a state church union which results in a church composed of all citizens. In the sixteenth century, the European Anabaptists opposed the use of the sword to mandate matters of the conscience. Seventeenth-century proto-Baptists such as Thomas Helwys (in England) and Roger Williams (in Colonial America) spoke directly to the governing authorities appealing for religious liberty. Baptists have always stood on the side of religious liberty for all. In fact, it was a group of Baptists in Danbury, CT, concerned about the infringement of the newly formed federal government upon the consciences of American citizens, to whom Thomas Jefferson responded in a letter with the famous expression of “separation of church and state” that has become such an important part of the American discussion concerning religious liberty. This expression was a summary of the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This is what the New England Baptist, Isaac Backus, had argued for in 1781.
As religion must always be a matter between God and individuals, no man can be made a member of a truly religious society by force or without his own consent, neither can any corporation that is not a religious society have a just right to govern in religious affairs.
Why Religious Liberty Matters
We believe in religious liberty for all. Is it because we think all religions are equally true? Or that there is no true religion? No, it’s because we don’t believe that government has the right to arbitrate people’s religious beliefs. Only God is over the human conscience, therefore we reject any human attempt to usurp God’s authority.
Sometimes, Christians don’t think clearly about these issues. This is why sometimes you will see Christians opposing Muslims building mosques or atheists from having public groups. Ironically, when Christians oppose the religious liberty of those who differ with them, they are laying the groundwork for their own demise.
Historically, Baptists have understood that a government that can outlaw Islam or atheism today, can outlaw Christianity tomorrow. Baptists have historically argued for the religious liberty of all people. As a group that was persecuted in their early days, Baptists have consistently argued for four hundred years that the civil government does not have authority over the consciences of citizens. Baptists have recognized that we either have religious liberty for all or not at all. If the government can take someone else’s freedom today, they can take yours tomorrow. Below is a list of quotes evidencing Baptists’ historic commitment to religious liberty. These could be multiplied many times over. The unique thing about the quotations below is not their advocacy of religious liberty for all, but that they specifically identify Muslims, Jews, heretics, and pagans specifically as deserving freedom to practice their religion. (Note: “Turks” and “Turkish” was used as an identifier of Muslims.)
“For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures.” Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612)
“It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.” Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644)
[Roger Williams also cited in a positive fashion that Oliver Cromwell once maintained in a public discussion “with much Christian zeal and affection for his own conscience that he had rather that Mahumetanism [i.e. Mohammedanism or Islam] were permitted amongst us, than that one of God’s Children should be persecuted.”]
“The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” John Leland, “The Virginia Chronicle” (1790)
We don’t solicit the government to help us with evangelism by outlawing other expressions of religious belief. Instead, we must be about the task of personal evangelism. We appeal not to force, but to the heart and mind of the individual. We don’t believe that you can be forced to be a Christian. Instead, we believe that if we have a free society in which the free exchange of ideas is allowed, the truth will prevail. If we believe the truth is on our side, there is no cause for Christians to be afraid of the free exchange of ideas that religious liberty provides.